May 8, 2009
As the fourth quarter got underway in Los Angeles on Wednesday night I got a text from my dad, a lifelong Lakers fan. He’s been following the team since getting “Hot Rod” Hundley and Elgin Baylor’s autograph as a kid when they were the Minneapolis Lakers playing home games at the Minneapolis Armory and Minneapolis Auditorium. The text read, “Fisher game MVP.” I agreed.
Fisher’s jarring, clearly illegal shot to Houston power forward Luis Scola was precisely what the Lakers, and their fans, needed at that moment. The Rockets had bullied LA up and down the floor en route to a Game One win despite the Lakers more technically skilled roster. It had been a humiliating effort and experience for everybody not wearing red that night.
Los Angeles came out inspired on Wednesay, riding Kobe Bryant’s 13 points in the first eight minutes of action to an early lead. LA managed to drop an impressive 39 points in the first quarter on Houston’s sturdy, stingy D. It looked like the dominant Lake Show fans have come to know over the last two seasons was back in form.
Derek Fisher Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Houston wasn’t ready to lay down for the higher seed or the bigger names, though, and they weren’t going to wilt under the bright lights. They pushed back. Hard. Los Angeles wasn’t ready for it. The score was tied 57-57 at the half, and I was impressed with Rick Adelman’s squad. This was playoff basketball as it was supposed to be. Physical. Aggressive. Spirited. One team pushes, the other pushes back, and nobody backs down. A test of not just talents, but wills. In the second and third quarter, like Game One, it looked like Ron Artest and the Houston Rockets were the team of superior will. They were certainly the more physically imposing team, grinding harder on the glass, banging more on the perimeter, hitting the deck with more vigor, chasing loose balls with greater alacrity, running through people with more abandon and setting meaner picks.
LA was playing soft and scared. They were playing like it was the regular season and they could simply turn it on at any point. They were playing like they did in Game One.
Then Fisher decided enough was enough. This isn’t the regular season, it’s the playoffs, and if you let a team exert themselves over you in the toughness department you’ll soon be enjoying the offseason. So Fish waited for his moment, and as Scola was about to set a back pick on him at the top of the key he turned and blew Scola up. All 6’1″ and 205 lbs. of Fish slammed into the 6’9″, 235 lbs. big man. Scola hit the deck, Fisher’s head started bleeding, and the refs convened. Clearly, it was a foul. Probably a flagrant foul – although it’s rare for a point running through a PF’s pick, even vehemently, to generate that much attention when neither fists nor testicles are involved.
To see Fisher tossed from the game was a shock. Both teams had been playing aggressive basketball, and while illegal, this wasn’t a particularly unusual play. Phil Jackson was livid. I was confused. This was simply not an uncommon occurrence in a heated, rough playoff series. I was also slightly embarrassed, wondering what 80s and 90s NBA fans and players were thinking of our current product. Then I remembered Joey Crawford was calling the game, shook my head, and moved on.
To learn on Thursday that Fisher had also been suspended for Game Three was mind boggling. For running through a pick? Are you serious? How sanitized and anesthetized has David Stern’s NBA become? The brawl at The Palace was a terrible thing, but can we finally take the kid gloves off again? While I will admit to having a personal preference for the Lakers, I also simply don’t think this is good for the NBA or for the series. Basketball fans, and not just those residing in Houston and Los Angeles, were just starting to enjoy an extremely physical, heated, emotional and compelling series that promised to be the best of the postseason so far, ultimately meaningless Boston-Chicago overtime dramatics be damned.
What the suspension means tonight, after the jump…
The suspension gives Houston a massive edge in Game Three tonight. Not only did I agree that Fisher was Game One MVP, I thought he could be the series MVP. His dramatic play woke the Lakers up, shook the sand out of their eyes. It let Houston know they weren’t going to back down under the pressure, and perhaps more importantly, it proved to his younger teammates that LA wasn’t going to. It’s emblematic of the presence he has on this team as a classy, intelligent, capable veteran leader. He may not be as quick as he used to be, but Derek Fisher can be my point guard any game. He’s still a solid and gritty defender. He’s a strong passer. He plays smart, takes care of the ball and doesn’t fold in important situations – he thrives in them.
The Lakers are going to miss Derek Fisher Friday night.
The suspension means that one of the Lakers backup point guards needs to step up, and that’s a perilous proposition at best. Kobe and Odom, among others, will certainly handle the ball more, but the Rockets pressure defense and skilled wing defenders will force LA points to be a factor. The goodwill that Jordan Farmar received as a result of his work ethic and status as hometown hero has all but evaporated. While he may be quicker than Fisher at this point and play passable defense, Farmar has proven to have extremely little upside and presents an offensive and decision-making liability.
The other option is an intriguing one, though. Shannon Brown is a relative unknown, but the third-year guard is an explosive, strong athlete that has shown flashes in limited minutes. He’s an aggressive player who takes it right into opponents’ grills on both ends, finishing strong around the basket on offense. There’s very little for Lakers fans to be pleased about with the Derek Fisher suspension, but if they eek out a win and Brown manages to come in and assert himself as a difference maker, or just establish himself as a reliable backup, it could turn out to be a positive development for the Lake Show.
That’s about as positive a spin as I can put on Fisher’s suspension at this point.